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West Virginia Lock, Dam Construction Unearths Finds

Tue May 18, 2010 - Northeast Edition
Rick Steelhammer - Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) The forward-looking upgrade of the Army Corps of Engineers lock and dam at Marmet ended up giving the Kanawha Valley an unexpectedly complete picture of its past.

Construction of the 800-ft. (244 m)-long, 110-ft. (33.5 m)-wide lock chamber allows nine-barge coal tows to pass through the Marmet river navigation facility in about 45 minutes. Previously, it took five hours to pass five barges through the complex.

But before construction could begin on the $400 million project, federal regulations required that an archaeological survey be conducted on the site. In the mid-1990s, archaeological excavation at the Marmet site began under the direction of Robert Maslowski, the now-retired archaeologist of the Huntington District of the Army Corps of Engineers.

“We expected to do two or three months of excavation, but ended going on for 11 months,” Maslowski said.

Archaeologists began by stripping away layers of soil on the approximate site of a plantation house and slave quarters known to have existed there.

In addition to finding the remnants of John Reynolds’ early 19th century mansion and salt-making enterprise, they found postholes marking the perimeter of a log stockade wall that turned out to encompass 24 houses in an American Indian village occupied 600 years ago.

Other excavations done in conjunction with the lock survey turned up projectile points used by the Kanawha Valley’s earliest known occupants — native people from the Late Paleo-Indian era, dating back to more than 8000 B.C. — and artifacts from the Early Archaic period between 8000 and 6000 BC.

“It turned out to be the largest professional excavation in the Kanawha Valley, maybe even the state,” said Aaron Smith, the archaeologist currently assigned to the Huntington District. “What started out as a routine archaeological excavation in advance of construction ended up producing 10,000 years of history.”

On March 29, exhibits showcasing some of the artifacts unearthed during the archaeological excavations associated with Marmet Locks went on display in the ground floor Rotunda area of the state Capitol. It was the first public showing of the finds.

The exhibit consists of two components: a display of historic artifacts dating back to the Kanawha Valley’s early salt-production era, and a prehistoric display covering the much longer American Indian occupation of the site.

In addition to stone tools and projectile points, the prehistoric display includes stone discs used in gaming, smoking pipes, bone beads, stone gorgets (neck protectors), toy pottery used by children and a large, intact cooking pot chiseled from a single chunk of sandstone.

On some of the pottery pieces, “you can see the makers’ fingerprints,” Smith said.

When the sandstone cooking pot was unearthed, it contained enough organic material in it to carbon-date. It turned out to be about 3,000 years old, chipped out of solid rock in an age just preceding the birth of pottery-making in the area, Smith said.

At the Reynolds Plantation, archaeologists found remnants of a slave cabin and ornaments worn by slaves, including pendants made from silver Spanish coins from the 1790s.

Foundation stones from the mansion, an attached root cellar, an outdoor cook-oven site and the remains of several salt-making furnaces were unearthed at the Reynolds site along Burning Springs Branch.

Plates, dining utensils, parts of a harmonica, a flintlock and French gunflints were among artifacts found at the Reynolds site.

“Tens of thousands of artifacts were found during the excavation work,” Smith said. “We didn’t want to dig all these things up just to have them locked up in a basement where no one would see them. But the Corps of Engineers doesn’t have facilities to store and exhibit these artifacts, so we started talking with the West Virginia Division of Culture and History about the possibility of them curating and exhibiting them.”

“When Aaron told us about the artifacts the Corps of Engineers had discovered at the Marmet site, we were very interested in doing something with them,” said Charles Morris, director of museums for Culture and History.

While the two displays of artifacts from the Marmet Lock excavation will be on exhibit for at least the next six months in the Rotunda, all artifacts from the American Indian site are expected to eventually be stored and periodically displayed at the Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex in Moundsville.

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